Have you ever imagined what it would take to climb a mountain? Not the kind in the Catskills that you drive up and picnic on – think we all have what it takes to do that. Before reading John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, I didn’t think about what it takes so much as how exhilarating it would feel to stand alone on the highest peak in the world. The hardest part would be leaving, right?
Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster six months after returning home from a summit that made 1996 the deadliest year in the history of Mount Everest. He was there on assignment to write an article on the commercialization of the mountain for Outside magazine. The fee for his spot on a guided climb was over $60,000 (paid by the magazine).
He begins this account with what you think would be the climax, standing on top of “the roof of the world” with one foot in China and one in Nepal. As the reader you feel like you’ve cheated to the end. You ready yourself for a vicarious taste of the purest exhilaration possible, already forgetting the book’s subtitle. Instead of a thrill you get dread and lots of it as he takes in the scene for all of five minutes, anxious to begin the descent.
Descent? Can’t we ascend first? Have a little fun? Why do we begin at the end, says the reader who imagines descending a mountain to be a lot like riding down a super long twisty slide. The first thing Krakauer wants us to know is that the descent is harder and more dangerous, especially when the climber looks down and sees dark heavy clouds already swallowing the lesser peaks below.
Fortunately, Krakauer does go back to the beginning to orient us not only in this specific climb, but in Everest’s history from the climber’s point of view. It wasn’t until 1852 that a Bengali computer (“computer” being the job title of one who computes) compiled the Great Trigonometrical Survey finding peak XV to be the highest in the world. Later named Mount Everest, it was successfully climbed (and descended) 101 years and 24 lives later.
To put the scale of this climb into perspective, Krakauer had decades of climbing experience, but at Base Camp he was already higher than he’d ever been in his life. He talks a lot about the culture of ascent and how, for such a commercialized climb, the number of people who have died attempting it is staggering. Why? Much of this account is his attempt to answer that question. Some of the answers are obvious – skilled climbers get cocky and fail to connect their ropes while others are as inexperienced as they are rich.
The first one hundred pages are packed with historical notes, some climbing background and set up. We get to know the other climbers, the leaders and the sherpas who carried gear, set ropes, cooked and took care of most of the physical logistics. At first the reading feels scattered from past to present and you’re plodding along from page to page again forgetting you’re reading a disaster book.
The structure mirrors the pace of the climb in a way, they go up to Camp 1, then down to Base Camp, then up to Camp 2 and Down to Camp 1, and so on. This allows climbers to acclimate to the extreme altitudes. For the reader, it allows you to forget everything you thought you knew about climbing and learn why it is one of the most physically and mentally challenging things a human do. Krakauer puts it much better:
When it came time for each of us to assess our own abilities and weigh them against the formidable challenges of the world’s highest mountain, it sometimes seemed as though half the population at Base Camp was clinically delusional.
The final ascent was scheduled for early May, during the short window of time when the weather was expected to be most agreeable. This window is no secret in the climbing world, which meant Krakauer’s team had a lot of company. Things began to go downhill from the beginning of the final leg. They set out for the peak around 11 pm in order to reach the top early enough to give themselves enough time to descend before dark.
The night had a cold, phantasmal beauty that intensified as we climbed.
As you lose count of the number of frozen corpses the climbers have to step over, it becomes clear how many moving parts must fall into place for a climb to be successful. From the beginning of the book, you know that nine people don’t return, but reading what happened to them isn’t easy.
These events, one after the other, had one guide asking “What have we done to make this mountain so angry?”
Krakauer pieces together the events and tragic circumstances that snowballed on top of the already dangerous givens of a climb – the effects of extreme altitude on your ability to make judgments and take action, the sheer physical exhaustion of climbing in extreme temperatures with little oxygen, and the surprise of severe weather. When those cumulonimbus clouds he’d stared down at from the top of the mountain opened up:
I could scarcely tell where the mountain ended and where the sky began…
After the first hundred pages, you can’t put the book down. The person sitting next to you has to ask what’s wrong because you look like you’re the one in pain. Had this been a work of fiction, you would’ve declared it too far fetched already. The play-by-play is not delicate, it’s startling how many things went wrong, and difficult to tell why some survived over others. Krakauer offers this on his own survival instinct:
…staying alive hinges on listening carefully to one’s “inner voice”…Problem was, my inner voice resembled chicken little: it was screaming that I was about to die, but it did that almost every time I laced up my climbing boots.
It’s all very sobering, an absorbing example of human nature choosing the extreme over the safe, risking their lives for a glimpse from the edge. A wild read.